Jim Fearon, an exceptionally smart political scientist currently at Stanford University, recently testified to a House of Representatives House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations [PDF file - or download the PDF file here] about the civil war in Iraq . Fearon has spent years examining civil wars and ethnic conflicts, and while he is no Middle East expert his testimony was informed by a broad comparative analysis and theoretical insights about the dynamics of civil war. His analysis of the civil war in Iraq as it has developed over the last year leads him to conclude:
"The historical record on civil war suggests that [US] strategy is highly unlikely to succeed, whether the US stays in Iraq for six more months or six more years (or more). (emphasis in original)"
Civil wars, Fearon points out, typically last a long time (on average, post-1945 civil wars have lasted a decade), and when they end, "they usually end with decisive military victories. Successful power-sharing agreements to end civil wars are rare, occurring in one in six cases, at best. When they have occurred, stable power-sharing agreements have usually required years of fighting to reach, and combatants who were not internally factionalized."
In other words, once a civil war starts it is unlikely to end until one side wins. In Iraq, Sunni-Shia fighting hasn't yet come close to producing either a clear victory or a stable equilibrium reflecting the real balance of forces on the ground: each side reasonably believes that further military action could help its cause, and that the other side believes the same. This creates what rational choice theorists call a commitment problem: there is no reason that Sunnis would believe that the Shia would continue to honor any agreements made under US auspices once the Americans left. Fearon concludes that "Civil wars for control of a central government typically end with one-sided military victories rather than power-sharing agreements, because the parties are organized for combat and this makes trust in written agreements on the allocation of revenues or military force both dangerous and naive."
Internal fragmentation also complicates any negotiated settlement. Shia and Sunni sides are both internally factionalized:
there is no equivalent of a Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic who
could come to an Iraqi equivalent of Dayton and sign binding agreements
which could be enforced on their respective communities. The factions and militias which have evolved into positions of power in Iraq are organized to fight wars, and the incentives at the ground level all push towards staying that way.
None of the options on the table, therefore, can "produce a peaceful, democratic Iraq that can stand on its own after US troops leave." Ramping up American forces could temporarily provide security or allow greater military actions against al-Qaeda in Iraq. But, Fearon argues, "Congress and the Bush administration have to ask what the long-run point is. The milita structures may recede, but they are not going to go away (absent some truly massive, many-decade effort to remake Iraqi society root and branch, which would almost surely fail)." He points to Bosnia, where a decade of NATO intervention has done little to reconstruct a Bosnia which could stand on its own without NATO forces. "A long-term US military presence in Iraq is probably less likely to produce a regime that can survive by itself than the international intervention in Bosnia has been. Staying the course, or throwing in more troops, amounts "to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success." In the end, "however long we stay, power-sharing is likely to fall apart into violence once we leave."
He argues against rapid withdrawal, since this would be the most likely way to trigger mass killings, instead favoring gradual redeployment timed to maximize US leverage over the various groups while minimizing the risks of al-Qaeda gaining a base in the Sunni areas. Instead, he favors gradual redeployment of US forces within the region to "allow populations to sort themselves out and form defensible lines that would lessen the odds of sudden, systematic campaigns of sectarian terror in mixed neighborhoods." This gradual redeployment might allow
"a less violent transition to a 'Lebanon equilibrium' of low-level, intermittent violence across relatively homogenous neighborhoods controlled by different militias.... effective political authority will devolve to city, region, and often neighborhood levels, and after a period of fighting to draw lines, an equilibrium with low-level, intermittent violence will set in, punctuated by larger campaigns financed and aided by foreign powers."
"A Lebanon Equilibrium" isn't quite as stirring as "a democratic model for the Middle East," but it's something, I suppose.
Finally, Fearon expects that Iran will likely intervene heavily in a post-American Iraq, but that this will hurt Iran more than the US: "As in Lebanon, we can expect a good deal of intervention by neighboring states, and especially Iran, but this intervention will not necessarily bring them great strategic gains. To the contrary, it may bring them a great deal of grief, just as it has the US." Iran would find itself bogged down in the turbulence of Iraq just as the US does today. As a result, "the scenario of a Lebanon-like civil war in Iraq... probably implies less Iranian influence in the Middle East as a whole."
I don't agree with all of Fearon's arguments or conclusions, but I thought it worthwhile to circulate more widely the conclusions about the current Iraq dilemma of one of the leading political scientists specializing in ethnic civil wars. Hey, if we get a high quality discussion going, maybe he can even be persuaded to come around and answer questions.